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Wind farm clears permits, concerns emerge

The proposed Salt Creek Wind Farm project in Tama County made significant steps toward becoming a reality recently.

The Tama County board of adjustment met at 9 a.m. on Dec. 9 in Toledo where they considered and ultimately voted on 60 conditional use permits submitted by Salt Creek Wind LLC.

The permits were seeking approval of 60 sites within a 25,000 acre footprint in central Tama County that will be used to construct wind turbines for the Salt Creek Wind Farm project.

After more than an hour of presentations from Salt Creek Wind representatives, the county board of adjustment ultimately voted 4-0 in favor of the 60 wind turbine sites.

Voting in favor were board members Stan Graff of rural Tama, Nancy Carlson of rural Tama, Todd Sebesta of rural Toledo and Mike Seda of rural Traer.

The 60 turbine sites lie on private property within an area mostly between Highway 96/63 and county road E29, east and west of Van Wall Equipment and Mid Iowa Coop. The project footprint comes within a short distance of the eastern border of Garwin, the southeastern border of Gladbrook and the southwestern border of Traer.

Presenting the permit application was attorney for Salt Creek Wind LLC, Amanda James of Sullivan & Ward, P.C. (West Des Moines).

In October James and Salt Creek Wind LLC presented an application for limited use permits for 10 sites within the 25,000 acre footprint for excavation work in December. Those permits were approved 4-0 by the Tama County board of adjustment on Oct. 21 and shortly thereafter by the Tama County Board of Supervisors on a 3-0 vote. Eight of those 10 sites were ultimately excavated in order for Salt Creek Wind to have work initiated in the 2020 calendar year and be eligible for certain federal tax credits.

Ahead of the December board of adjustment meeting County Zoning Administrator Todd Apfel distributed 149 letters to property owners in the proposed Salt Creek Wind Farm footprint notifying them of the application submitted by Salt Creek Wind and of the meeting on Dec. 9.

According to Apfel, letters were sent to all property owners within 1,100 feet of any of the 60 wind turbine sites; 100 feet beyond the minimum requirement.

Salt Creek Wind project developer David Boyce spoke next to the board about the history of the project and about some of the project specifications and timelines that have taken shape over the past year.

Boyce worked as the CEO of Wind Capital Group alongside current Salt Creek Wind consultants Bob Bergstrom and Eric Bergstrom on the prior Salt Creek Wind project in 2011 that ultimately stalled before clearing the permit phase.

“We’re back because I think that this area remains a very competitive site for wind energy,” Boyce said.

Also back from the initial Salt Creek Wind effort are six landowners who comprised the landowners association that helped drive the project locally. They include Kurt Boerm, Nick Podhajsky, Ron Groth, Keith Sash, Mark Earley and Gary Hanus.

According to Boyce the landowner group negotiated the lease agreements that were be offered to property owners in the Salt Creek Wind area both with a turbine site on their land and nearby one of the turbine sites.

Lease negotiations between Salt Creek Wind and the six Tama County landowners began in August of 2019 and concluded in February 2020.

Boyce said that Bechtel Construction is the entity sponsoring the project and would be the engineers and builders of the project. Bechtel Construction is a Virginia-based engineering, procurement, project management and construction company that is considered one of the largest privately owned companies in the United States.

According to Boyce, project outreach to landowners began in March of 2020, first to those with the largest amount of acres in the area and later to homestead or acreage owners with five acres or less. Boyce said formal outreach to those individuals did not begin until the “recent weeks” leading up to the Dec. 9 meeting.

Salt Creek Wind has yet to determine which type of wind turbine they plan to use in the new Tama County wind farm, a decision that will have an effect on how many turbines are constructed. Boyce said their plan is to decide between either a 3 megawatt or a 4.2 megawatt turbine sometime in 2021.

The larger the turbine, the fewer windmills will need to be installed. Boyce said if they choose the 3 megawatt turbine, they will build 56 or 57 windmills with three or four additional windmills as backup units.

If the group chooses the 4.2 megawatt turbine, they will build only 40 or 41 sites with a few additional sites as backups.

The permit applications were for the maximum amount of turbines the project could see. The final sites will be chosen from the group of 60 that was part of the Salt Creek Wind permit application.

By comparison, the Vienna Wind Farm that was built in 2011 in the northwest corner of Tama County and into Marshall County consists of 52 windmills with 2.3 megawatt wind turbines.

With the turbine decision coming in 2021, Boyce said the earliest he expects construction to begin would be the spring of 2020 and that their construction timeline would be largely dependent on the turbine delivery schedule.

Boyce went on to describe the decision making process that led Salt Creek Wind to proceed with the 60 sites.

Once Salt Creek Wind recruited enough landowners for the wind farm footprint to take shape, they applied the setback and regulation guidelines laid out in Tama County’s Wind Energy Conversion System Ordinance to narrow down where the turbines could be placed. Tama County established this ordinance in 1998.

Two of the primary issues discussed regarding tower placement were the setback requirement from structures and the noise level regulation.

Tama County’s ordinance requires wind turbines to be separated from the nearest residence, school, church or public library by a minimum of 1,000 feet.

According to Boyce, the 60 sites put forth in the permit application are at a minimum of 1,500 feet away from any such structures.

As for noise requirements, the ordinance states that wind turbine sites should not emit noise above 60 decibels when measured at a dwelling, school, church or public library.

Salt Creek Wind’s permit application indicates noise would not rise above 50 decibels when measured from each of the 234 receptor points in the wind farm footprint, most of which are dwellings.

Boyce discussed the underground lines that would need to connect each of the turbines within the farm. He said once Salt Creek Wind had determined which turbine they were going to use, how many turbines would be built and where they would be located; they would walk each line with the respective landowner and come up with the best plan for how to place all of the underground lines.

Boyce said all of the collection lines would be placed 4-feet below grade and that even though they expect to break some field tile when they install the lines, the lease agreements include a provision for Salt Creek Wind to replace any broken tile.

Tama County Economic Development Director Katherine Ollendieck spoke at the meeting and was optimistic on the prospect of the wind farm and the economic impact it could have on the county.

“Right now the conservative estimate in tax revenue and lease payments through the first 20 years is $57 million,” Ollendieck said. “I can work really hard at my desk to create an awful lot of development, but there is nothing like this opportunity that would make this big of an impact. I believe this will be really good for Tama County for a long time to come.”

After Boyce was finished with his portion of the presentation, James returned to outline the requirements within Tama County’s wind energy ordinance and how she felt Salt Creek Wind had met each of the requirements.

While the wind farm project has been welcomed with open arms by some, there are others who aren’t happy about it.

Multiple Tama County residents expressed various concerns about the project both at the county meeting on Dec. 9 and in conversation with the News Chronicle.

At the board of adjustment meeting county residents Lori Reichmann, Cheryl Hoskey and Trish Jesina spoke out among a group of roughly two dozen attendees about concerns of the project progressing without much communication.

Reichmann said the first she heard about the board meeting was from a neighbor a few days prior.

“We’ve lived here for 18 years,” Riechmann said. “Now when we look outside at night instead of the moon we’ll see a wind turbine.”

Hoskey said that after she and her husband declined to sign a lease having a wind turbine on their property, they’ve felt out of the loop ever since. She said they also weren’t aware of the board of adjustment meeting and the impending permit decision until a neighbor contacted them.

Jesina, who lives in rural Toledo near the southern border of the wind farm footprint, echoed some of the concerns voiced by her peers and encouraged the board to postpone their vote.

“I feel the public has not been informed of this project,” Jesina said. “For the full map to be released to the public today, I just feel like there should be, instead of making a decision today, I feel like the public should be able to vote.”

Jesina told the News Chronicle her family was first notified of the project by a letter from Salt Creek Wind in the spring of 2020 and then by phone. She said they attended an invitation only landowner meeting at the Memorial Building in Traer over the summer but ultimately decided to decline the offer for a wind turbine lease on their land.

“Unlike others, I value the beauty of the landscape more than I do the money I would’ve been compensated if I signed up and gave up the rights to my land,” Jesina said.

After they declined to participate in the summer, Jesina said they have felt out of the loop with the project despite two turbines going in within a quarter mile of their house.

“After I told Salt Creek Wind that I would not be signing up my land, I never heard from them again until I emailed their attorney asking how close the turbines would be to my property,” Jesina said later by email. “The big map showing all of the wind turbines was not disclosed until the board of adjustment meeting. I feel that the only people who were made known about the project were the ones that would benefit from it. The acreage owners and the landowners who did not sign up were left in the dark. Salt Creek Wind used this along with the pandemic to their advantage to get this passed without letting the public know.”

After fielding some of the concerns Boyce responded for Salt Creek Wind and tried to illustrate the ways in which the company has attempted to be fair in their outreach but how circumstances with the pandemic have made their usual process a challenge.

“From the company’s perspective, we’ve tried to be fairly open and transparent,” Boyce said. “We have an office in Toledo. We’ve talked to 150-some landowners in addition to talking to 50 or 60 more that didn’t want to participate in the project. We’ve joined the economic development group and have been in the newspaper a number of times. We’re certainly not trying to hide or not be open with the community at large or with the landowners in our project footprint. In different times without this pandemic we would have loved to this fall had an open community meeting where we could get people’s questions answered. Circumstances just haven’t afforded us opportunity. That’s a fair criticism that there could have been more information out there to the community at large, but we’re trying to do our best given the circumstances.”

Mike Thompson lives south of Traer within the wind farm footprint and says his primary concern was the lack of communication and transparency he felt was received as a smaller landowner.

Thompson said an article published by the Sun Courier in October was the first they had heard about anything regarding the wind farm despite having one of the six commission members harvesting next door to him throughout the fall.

Thompson also expressed frustration about the deal being done without input from homestead owners who don’t have as many acres involved as those who spearheaded the project locally.

He also mentioned of a large gap in payout between those with a turbine on their property and those with a turbine nearby their property. Thompson shared his agreement was for $500 per year without a turbine and that he heard a neighbor with a turbine was getting around $12,000 per year.

The News Chronicle heard from other landowners who said they would also be receiving $500 per year for being nearby a turbine, but have not confirmed the lease agreement amount for the landowners with a turbine going on their property.

For some, like John Wagner of rural Traer, it wouldn’t matter the potential money.

“There may be provisions for remunerations for us but it’s nothing, a couple hundred a year,” Wagner said. “I don’t care if it’s a couple thousand I still don’t want it. It’s not something I want to sit out on my porch and look at, or hear, or see flashing red lights all night long.”

Wagner also voiced concerns over the transparency of the wind farm development process.

“Transparency would have been nice. Anytime you’re not notified I think there are reasons behind that. Usually you have a planning meeting for everybody that is going to be impacted by something and at least you have a voice. Right now I don’t feel like we have a voice. To me it feels like a done deal,” Wagner said.

Other concerns included nuisance issues like noise, the visual site of the turbines, shadow flicker and the red lights at night. Some brought up the reliability of wind energy, their heavy reliance on federal subsidies and the concern of how the large fiberglass blades would be disposed of once the turbines come down at the end of their life.

The issue that has been raised most often is a claim that the commission members who negotiated the lease agreements do not live in the wind farm footprint, yet will be receiving the biggest payouts since they own farm ground in the area. If that’s the case, they would reap the benefits without having to deal with the nuisance issues next to their homes.

At the board meeting Boyce addressed the question and tried to assure the group that a significant amount of the overall landowners that have signed lease agreements do live in the area.

“It’s not as if all 25,000 acres of landowners all live remote from Tama County,” Boyce said. “Most I think live in and amongst the wind turbines, whether they live on their parcel with a wind turbine or not, they do live in this area.”

Cody Hamilton lives on eight acres southwest of Traer and was similarly discouraged with how the wind farm project has progressed in his area, likening the construction of the turbines to a hog barn going in next door.

“(The turbines) aren’t popular with anybody that lives out here,” Hamilton said. “It would have been nice if they would have extended a little more concern about what we thought about the project. None of (the landowner association members) live out here, they all live in town and don’t have to look at them everyday. We do and they kind of throw them up like it’s no big deal. We should have had a vote on it, to where everybody has a little say in it.”

Hamilton is concerned with the potential noise nuisance the turbines may create saying that on a quiet night with the wind blowing in the right direction he can hear the sound from the wind farm in Gladbrook nearly 10 miles away.

Jody Boldt lives in rural Gladbrook less than a half mile south of three turbines in the Vienna Wind Farm.

She said she was not happy when the wind farm moved into her area 10 years ago.

“Your quiet is gone,” Boldt said. “Your peace is gone. To be able to sit outside and not listen to anything, that’s gone. You don’t hear crickets anymore, all you hear is whoosh-whoosh-whoosh.”

Boldt said in the winter if the wind is blowing she can hear the sound of the turbines inside their house.

When the Vienna Wind Farm went in she said her residence was just outside of the Vienna farm boundary and that she hasn’t seen any sort of compensation despite living with the nuisance issues.

One thing is for sure, this group of concerned citizens values their quiet rural lives.

“The bottom line is they are messing with our quality of life. You work hard and that’s my haven out there. That’s where I go to relax. It’s my home and to me there is now going to be some disruption in that. To me it’s wrong the way they went at it,” Wagner said.

Following the board of adjustment’s approval of the conditional use permits it appears Salt Creek Wind has cleared most, if not all, of the regulatory hurdles they would need to proceed with the project.

During the meeting Boyce encouraged those with questions to contact Salt Creek Wind’s land agent Arthur Reigel at arthur@blueskyenergyllc.com.

The wind farm project map can be viewed online at https://saltcreekwindproject.com/. The company’s office is located at 203 West High Street, Suite C, Toledo; although they indicated at the meeting the office would be staffed only part-time.